A week has passed, and the group is settling in at the CDC headquarters. Fresler relishes his warm morning showers, and meals in the cafeteria are his favorite times of day, when all his friends gather for conversation that feels almost normal. No more discussions of navigation, supply inventory, and shelter recon. The temperature in the building is always a perfect seventy-six degrees, and the wind chap on everyone’s faces is fading quickly.
Fresler paces the halls with Sharon, restless with excitement. His parents will arrive today, via helicopter. It took the Department of Defense only thirty-six hours following Fresler’s arrival to locate his mother and father in Norway, and another two days after that to coordinate their transportation to the CDC in Atlanta.
“I can’t wait to see my parents,” Fresler says to Sharon, as they stroll past the cafeteria on their way to the employee gym. After the weeks of relentless hiking, they both feel antsy lounging in their room for too long. “I’m so thankful they’re safe,” he goes on. “I’m so lucky.”
“I’m thankful too,” Sharon responds. Then she laughs. “Can I be honest with you about something?”
“Of course. Always.”
“I’ve never met your parents. I have to admit, I’m a little nervous. What if we don’t hit it off?”
“What are you talking about?” says Fresler, poking her arm. “You met them on FaceTime. We’ve had loads of conversations on there.”
“That’s not the same.”
Fresler kisses her forehead. “You have nothing to be nervous about. They already love you.”
At 5:00 p.m., William tracks Fresler down in the recreation room to inform him that his parents will be arriving in less than thirty minutes.
William leads Fresler and Sharon to the rooftop helipad. Everyone else in the group is waiting downstairs in the main lobby to meet Fresler’s parents.
“Thanks again for bringing my parents here. I know you didn’t have to transport them across an ocean just to test their blood. I really appreciate it,” Fresler gushes.
William nods. “It’s the least we can do for the man that saved millions of lives.”
William is the first one to spot the helicopter as it makes its approach. As it gets closer, Fresler bounces on the balls of his feet. He can’t wait to hug his mom and dad. He used to speak with them several times a week. It’s been torture not knowing how they are, whether this virus aﬀected them.
Beside him, Sharon shrinks in on herself, fingers tapping a nervous rhythm on her crossed arms. What if they don’t like me in person? She knows it’s a minuscule concern to have, in the face of everything that has happened, but she can’t help worrying. Sharon loves Fresler with all she has, and she’s lost her entire family. Fresler’s parents can’t take the place of her own, but they can still be her family—a new family, for a new world.
As the helicopter aligns itself above the helipad, the rotor blades generate wind gusts, sending dirt swirling over the roof in miniature tornadoes. They all turn their heads and cover their eyes as the helicopter lands.
Fresler’s father climbs out of the aircraft first—hopping down pretty spryly for an eighty-one-year-old—then turns to extend a hand to his wife. Fresler runs to them, wrapping them both in a huge hug, the moment his mother’s feet touch the tarmac. They squeeze him back with toned arms.
Despite their phenomenal shape, they still dress and act their age. His mother’s loose cotton turtleneck and his father’s khaki’s smell of fresh air and lavender soap. Fresler leads them to Sharon and William, grinning ear to ear while his mother frets over his skinny frame. She cuts off her tutting to throw her arms open for Sharon, who walks into them with a relieved smile that melts Fresler’s heart.
“Hi, sweetie, it is so nice to finally meet you in person,” she says. Her English is excellent, although she speaks with a distinct accent. “You’re just as beautiful in person as you are on that computer screen.”
“Thanks, it’s great to meet you in person too, Mrs. Barsness,” says Sharon, blushing.
“Please, dear, you know me better than that. Call me Gladys.”
Fresler’s dad shoots Sharon his ornery smile, the one that wrinkles his nose like a mischievous kid. “You can call me Mr. Barsness.” He thinks of himself as a natural-born comedian. Everyone obliges him with a laugh, as he relents. “Just kidding, you can call me Lars.”
“I will,” says Sharon, sucking up with an extra chuckle as he hugs her.
“Mom, Dad,” Fresler says, “This is William Frieden, the director of the CDC.”
Lars shakes William’s hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet both of you. Let’s get you settled in. Follow me.” William escorts the group to the elevator.
As the elevator door opens on the ground floor, Jackie, Jennifer, Tina, Charles, and Benjamin wave like fans expecting a movie star’s arrival.
Fresler’s cheeks are already aching, but he can’t dim his smile.
“Everyone, this is my mom and dad, Gladys and Lars. Mom and Dad, these are the most amazing friends anyone could ever ask for,” Fresler says. “They’re the reason why I’m here today.” He introduces everyone by name and how they met, and his parents shake hands all around.
“It is such a pleasure to meet the parents of the man who saved my daughter’s life,” Jackie says when it’s her turn to be introduced. “Your son is a hero in my book.”
“Oh, my goodness,” says Gladys, and hand on her heart.
“The pleasure is all mine.” Lars smiles with pride.
“I’m not the true hero in this group,” Fresler says, nodding at Jackie. “Her husband, John, saved all our lives many times over.”
After giving Fresler and his parents some time to catch up and get settled, William escorts Gladys and Lars to the lab, where a nurse will draw their blood to determine if they’re genetically related to Fresler. If they are, they may share his immunity. William lets himself follow that train of thought a step further: perhaps these are the three immune individuals mentioned in the message the DoD found, all in a single family. It almost seems too easy.
After the nurse finishes drawing their blood, Fresler takes his parents to the cafeteria for a late meal. “This place is great,” Lars exclaims two bites into his pot pie. “They have awesome food here. I could get used to this.”
“I missed you both so much,” says Fresler. He clears his throat before he can continue. “I was so worried about you.”
“We were worried about you too, sweetie.” Gladys pats his hand.
“I knew you would be fine. After all, you’re a Barsness,” says Lars before inhaling half a Rice Krispies treat in one go.
“Don’t let him fool you, he was just as worried as I was.”
After an enormous swallow, Lars fixes Fresler with a no-nonsense look. “We’re still confused as to why we were flown over here. They said it had to do with you and this virus, but they wouldn’t give us any details. We would never pass up a chance to see you again. We’ve been so worried about you. But now that we’ve given our blood, can you tell us what’s going on?”
Fresler takes a deep breath and exhales slowly. “It’s true… your presence here has to do with this virus. My blood is being used to develop a vaccine.”
Their jaws drop as they turn to each other with matching flabbergasted looks.
“How is that possible?” asks Lars.
Fresler leans in. “I’m immune.”
“We thought no one was immune,” says Gladys.
“Well… I am. I can’t explain it.” Fresler throws his hands in the air. “I was exposed to the virus, and I didn’t fall sick. My blood was injected into Jennifer, after we found out she had been infected. She was cured after the injection.”
Gladys puts her hands over her mouth. “Oh, my God. That’s amazing!”
Lars shakes his head. “You’re going to save millions of lives… That’s unbelievable. As a kid, you always wanted to save the world. You actually did it, Fresler.”
Fresler’s eyebrows raise. ’What are you talking about?”
“When you were a kid, you would always dress up like Thor and pretend to save the world, and now you have. You’re a hero, son.” Lars puts his hand on Fresler’s shoulder and squeezes, his eyes shining with paternal pride.
“No, I’m not… I didn’t do anything special.”
Lars presses. “But you did… You are special.”
Gladys interrupts. “Do they think that we may also be immune, since we’re your parents? Is that why they flew us out here?”
“That’s part of it,” Fresler says. “There are a lot of questions right now, and the CDC is hoping that your blood may hold some answers.”
Gladys is the first to frown at his nervous tone, but Lars follows a second later, reading the room. “Should we be worried?” asks Lars.
“No, there is nothing to worry about. I’m fine, and so are you. Now that you’re here, even if you aren’t naturally immune, you’ll be able to become immune. Everything is going to work out.”